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Silence rested on her shoulders like a crushing weight. The thumping of her heart magnified tenfold as Birdie strained her ears for the familiar melody — a cluster of notes that brought warmth and comfort to the soul, piercing despair with a glimmer of hope. Instead, she heard only the groaning timbers, crashing waves, and creaking blocks of the Langorian ship. Within the hold, chains rattled and muffled coughs echoed from the bulkheads, the sounds of the sick and dying.
Yet the Song remained silent.
A hand grazed her arm, and she started back.
"It's all right," Ky grunted. "It's just me."
She peered in the direction of his voice, though she knew she wouldn't be able to see his face through the gloom. A hacking cough came from somewhere to her right, punctuated by wheezing that sounded more like groaning. In the weeks since their capture, it had become a familiar sound. The herald of death.
Somewhere in the hold, a captive was dying. Alone, ignored, abandoned — even by his fellow prisoners. Though their hands were free, chains bound their ankles to the deck, restricting movement to a few feet in either direction, and anything above a whisper drew the wrath of their captors. No one would dare lift a voice in comfort or to call for aid.
She had witnessed it many times, felt it moving in herself, that hopelessness that deadens compassion. They were all made selfish in their fear. Weeks spent shackled in the hold with countless other poor souls, and she didn't even know who they were. Would they all die so in the weeks to come, forgotten?
Another strangled cough. Then silence.
Horrible, dead silence.
Her hands shook. She clutched them to her damp forehead and huddled with her elbows tucked into her body, but she couldn't stop them from shaking. Not even when the hatch flew open a few minutes later, releasing blinding light into the hold, and two pirates stumped down the ladder carrying buckets of stale water and hard bread. Her hands trembled as she choked down food, and as the pirates dragged the dead slave up the ladder and the hatch thudded shut behind them, plunging the hold back into night.
Outside, a loud splash, then something thumped against the side of the ship.
"Ky ..." She broke off with the name scarce spoken.
Even a whisper seemed disrespectful in this floating tomb.
The words sounded in her head, but somehow she couldn't muster the courage to get them past her tongue. How could she tell Ky she was sorry he had been dragged into her mess, that he should never have tried to help her, that she knew it was her fault he was a prisoner?
Chains clinked to her right, and his voice spoke beside her ear. "What is it?"
The rehearsed speech failed her, so she blurted out the first thing that came to mind — anything to distract from the terrible silence. "Do you ever think ... What would you be doing right now if you were back in the Underground?"
"Probably running for my life." He snorted. An attempt at a laugh, but a pitiful one. "I tend to do that a lot." His chains clinked, indicating a shift of positions. "I just wish I could know they were all safe. Meli, Paddy, Aliyah, even Cade."
Birdie couldn't bring herself to say his name out loud, but the thought of the gruff peddler brought a tear to her eyes. For all she knew, Amos McElhenny was dead, lying cold and forsaken on the beach where she had left him when the pirates dragged her away. She shoved her trembling hands into her lap and clenched them beneath her knees.
She might not be able to will her hands to stop shaking, but she could force them. This at least was something she could control.
Across the hold, a child gasped for breath.
The five broken notes of the child's melody filled Birdie's head. Weak as a candle quivering before a gust of wind. The sound tore Birdie to the heart.
"Why don't they help us?" Ky muttered. "It doesn't make a lick of sense. You'd think they'd give us a little light, air, fresh water, if only to keep us alive until they can sell us, instead of leaving us here to rot! Dead slaves aren't worth anything. Why do they let us die?"
Birdie knew the answer, but she couldn't bring herself to give it voice. Tales of the Langorian pirates had been a common subject of travelers' tales at the Sylvan Swan. The tales spoke of a brutal people who valued strength above all else. Pity was a thing unknown to them, for pity was weakness, and slaves in a hold were considered little more than cattle, worth only what they could bring on an ever flooded market. With a fast ship, a brisk wind, and a crew of swordsmen, new captives were ever ripe for the taking.
The child's cough faded, replaced by whimpering.
Ky slapped his palms against the deck. "I can't listen to this anymore. Please, Birdie, you have to help them. You did it before, didn't you? Why don't you do it again?"
Heat drained down the back of her neck, leaving her suddenly chilled. There was no need for him to explain what it was. For weeks she had been dreading this question.
"Can't you do it again? Heal them?"
Even though she couldn't see him, she could feel his gaze fixed on her, and oh, how she longed to say yes. But her hand flew to her neck instead, and she gently massaged her throat, fingers trembling over the bruise marks Carhartan's hands had left.
"I ... I can't."
"But your voice is back now."
She nodded, but could not speak. Her voice had returned after Carhartan's attempt to choke her on the beach outside of Bryllhyn. But the Song itself was gone. It had mysteriously abandoned her, just like everything else. She still heard it all around her, five broken notes sung by dozens of different voices in dozens of different keys, tempos, and tones. Some she could trace to the captives near her, others to the pirates. Ky's voice was easily recognizable now. But the complete melody that had torn through the Westmark Bridge and scattered her foes in Bryllhyn, full of beauty and depth beyond anything she could describe, was distant. It hummed in the background, always just beyond reach.
The Song might be powerful, but it was a power she didn't understand and certainly couldn't control. Little Songkeeper, they called her — the pirates, Carhartan, even Gundhrold. But she could no more command the melody to her will than she could summon the tide.
The child moaned and the five-noted melody grew even fainter.
"I'm sorry, Ky." A tear slipped down Birdie's cheek. "I ... I can't sing."
I don't know how.
"Do you fear me, little Songkeeper?"
The slow, heavily-accented voice of the Langorian pirate lord washed over her, and Birdie raised her eyes, still blinking at the daylight, to meet his gaze. It took every ounce of courage she had to endure his scrutiny without looking away. She swallowed to keep the truth from slipping past her lips and forced herself to stand straight though her head barely reached Rhudashka's barrel chest.
Of course she feared the man. How could she not? The deaths she had witnessed in Bryllhyn and the slaves rotting in the hold of his ship painted a vivid image of his character. Even now, the five notes of his melody coiled around her like a noose threatening to choke the life from her lungs, until she couldn't bear it anymore and broke free from his stare.
Overhead, sails strained against their lashings and taut rigging hummed in the wind. The scent of brine hung heavy in the air. Spray dashed over the side of the ship, soaking Birdie's dress and stinging the raw marks on her ankles where the chains had chaffed her skin. When the pirates hauled her above decks, they had released her from the heavy ankle irons that bound her to the ship. But before unlocking her chains, they secured her wrists with a pair of manacles on a length of chain that dangled like a lead on a dog.
"You do fear me." A grin spread across Rhudashka's face but failed to reach his eyes. He stood at the base of the foremost of the ship's two masts, an imposing figure shaped like a boulder, clad in a crimson knee-length robe over loose trousers, with gold chains around his neck and rings on his fingers. Dark hair billowed about his face, knotted in tangles by the swift breeze. He balanced with one hand on the rail, his ponderous bulk shifting deceptively easily with the motion of the sea.
With her hands chained, Birdie lurched and stumbled every time the ship swayed. Beside her, Ky didn't seem to be faring much better. But he at least had the "support" of the pirates flanking him on either side. For some reason, her guard stood a good three paces back.
Someone cuffed the side of her head. "Answer the captain, naishka." Fjordair, Rhudashka's second in command, appeared in the corner of her vision: a slight figure in a loose blue tunic, shoulders hunched, fingers fiddling with the hilts of a dozen daggers stowed in the sash at his waist.
"Aw, come on." Ky wrestled with his guards' restraining hands. "What do you want her to say? Sure she's terrified. We both are. You cursed Langorians don't exactly have a shining reputation around —"
One of the pirates slammed his fist into Ky's stomach. He doubled over, groaning.
"Ky!" Birdie broke toward him, but Fjordair grabbed her chain and slung her back toward Rhudashka. She stumbled and fell.
The pirate lord loomed over her, crimson coat filling her vision, and then bent so his head was on a level with hers, his face only inches away. "My men, they fear you." His breath, flushed with brew, washed over her.
She shrank away from the stench and backed into Fjordair's legs. He yanked on the chain, hauling her up and roughly into place. The pirate lord continued. "They fear you will do something ... terrible ... to them. That you will korsa the sea and the wind with your naian — with your magic voice — and kill us all."
Birdie licked the salt from her lips and let her attention flicker to her guards. They did seem nervous — standing with weapons half drawn, eyes fixed alternately on her and on the deck planking beneath their feet, taut as a drawn crossbow string. One clutched a beaded scarf to the lower half of his face, as though he feared she carried some sort of infectious disease.
"My men think I take big risk bringing you aboard, but I know better." Rhudashka clucked his tongue at her. "You are but naishka, a young one. This thing you cannot do. Otherwise you would be free, and my ship, she would be at the bottom of zahel."
Birdie released a heavy breath. "What do you want from me?"
"We must reach an agreement, you and I. In one week, we reach Langoria. Korsakk Haitem is old. He will not live long. With you as my Naian — my Songkeeper — the other lords will see my strength, and I will become Korsakk in his stead."
So she would not only be a slave, but a prize to be flaunted. A token of his victory. It wasn't completely unexpected. Even in Hardale, Birdie had heard talk of the Langorians and their fierce and barbaric king, the Korsakk. Still, hearing the words from Rhudashka, Birdie's mouth went dry.
But now was not the time for tame submission. The pirate lord might not fear her reputation as a Songkeeper, but the others did. Perhaps that could gain her something.
"You said this was an agreement?" Birdie tilted her head back and forced herself to stare Rhudashka in the eye. Strong, calm — that was what she needed to appear, even if everything within her trembled at her boldness. "Why should I agree?"
With an exaggerated sigh, Rhudashka flicked a hand as if shooing a troublesome fly.
Fjordair shoved Birdie forward. Unbalanced, she slammed into the rail and nearly pitched onto her face. Behind, a commotion broke out. Boots thudded across the deck. Cursing in a foreign tongue.
Then Ky cried out.
Birdie spun around. The thin pirate held Ky in a death grip, a dagger pressed to his throat. A grin split Fjordair's face as Ky struggled, feet scraping the deck.
"I make it plain," Rhudashka said. "You agree, or I kill little zabid ... your friend, no?"
Birdie clenched her nails into her palms. In the background, she could hear the Song, but it was faint and seemed so very far away. Nothing at all like the times when it had leapt to her rescue. She closed her eyes and reached deep within to summon the melody. Her unspoken plea echoed in her ears, hopeless.
Her eyes flew open as Rhudashka's hand settled on her shoulder, and she shrank from his touch. "You will be my Naian. You will sing when I say. You will do what I command. You will yield to my wishes, and I will protect you and little zabid here. But sing one false note, Naian, and Fjordair will go to work. He is a true artist with the blade. He would make great masterpiece out of your zabid's face."
Birdie's gaze dropped past her chained hands to her bare feet and the scarred planks of the deck. How could she do what Rhudashka demanded when she couldn't summon the Song or bend it to her will?
When whatever power she was supposed to possess as the Songkeeper constantly eluded her?
Worse still, how could she be the Songkeeper, if she had no control over the Song?
Rhudashka's phlegmy rumble spoke next to her ear. "Think it over, Naian."CHAPTER 2
"Boggswogglin' varmints!" Amos tugged his feathered cap low over his forehead to shield his eyes from the pelting sand, and ducking his chin to his chest, pressed forward into the wind. "D' ye think we lost 'em?" A gust fairly tore the words from his lips, replacing them with a mouthful of grit.
"Perhaps." Gundhrold limped past, broken wing dragging the ground, leaving a trail of dust and torn feathers in his wake. Even wounded, the griffin set a pace that left Amos panting. "But we must hurry all the same."
"Hurry, aye, but hurry where?" Amos halted midstride and spread his arms wide to encapsulate the view. The Vituain desert surrounded them, vast in its nothingness. Miles upon miles of sand dunes punctuated by jagged rock spires and ringed by tall, craggy mountains. The nearest line of mountains stabbed up from the earth to their left, still a good half day's journey away.
Four weeks they'd been traveling. Four weeks since the skirmish near Bryllhyn, where Amos's mother was slain, and Birdie — the wee lass that he'd sworn to protect — was carried off by the cursed Langorian pirates. Four weeks on the road, forced to endure the company of the sanctimonious griffin. Journeying through a country gearing up for war, like a cornered beast preparing to turn and rend its attacker.
Amos glanced back over his shoulder. Some attackers deserved a bit of rending. There was still no sign of their shadows, though with all the wind gusting and sand whipping about, five Khelari could be easily missed. The foul slumgullions had been following them since they passed through Caacharen five days past. Apparently his recent exploits had resurrected the name of Hawkness ... and the bounty on his head.
What with Gundhrold's injuries and his own wound sapping both their strength, he didn't much like the idea of a five on two fight. At least not until he'd made sure Birdie was safe.
With a sigh, he turned back to the griffin. "D' ye have any idea where we're goin'?"
"In truth, peddler?" The look of disgust on the griffin's face might have melted a less hardy man, but Amos McElhenny had walked the secret paths below Mount Eiphyr and witnessed the horrors of the Pit. He was not a man easily dismayed.
So he whispered to himself as the griffin's unblinking stare settled on him.
"Is your ignorance so blatant that you no longer care, or do you crouch behind the excuse of old age and its softening of memory?" Gundhrold's head lowered until his massive beak was only inches away from Amos's nose. "I am a son of the desert. This was once my home — the home of all my kind. I know every crag, every slope, every crick and hollow —"
Amos rolled his eyes. "Every blatherin' speck o' sand?"
"I know where I'm going. Don't interfere." The griffin padded off, broken wing still trailing the ground, leaving Amos racking his brain for a suitable insult for the ... the ... insufferable beast.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Songkeeper"
Copyright © 2016 Gillian Bronte Adams.
Excerpted by permission of Third Day Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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